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Who is exempt from the mask mandate and what options to people with disabilities have?

HOUSTON – With Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask mandate in place, his position on the matter is clear.

“If everyone can adopt the practice of wearing a face mask for the next four weeks, we will be able to get COVID 19 under control,” Abbott told KPRC2 during an interview last week.

It’s a simple strategy to fight a complex virus. But what about those unable to mask up?

“I understand everyone’s fear of contracting this virus through spit or snot however, I’m unable to wear a mask. I’m 21 years old and I just want to live my life,” said Sam Hofer who says he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that prevents him from wearing a mask.

PTSD is a mental health condition commonly associated with military veterans who served on the front-lines. However, it can develop from other traumatic events.

“I got mine when I was sexually assaulted when I was younger, as a child. So putting a mask on my face is like a reoccurring event over and over again,” said Hofer.

Hofer, who lives with his elderly grandfather, says a routine trip to the store results in staredowns.

“As far as going out to say H-E-B or Walmart, I get turning heads all the time,” said Hofer.

It’s a dilemma split three ways.

Hofer has concerns and so do fellow customers and business owners.

“There is a delicate balance in the ADA regulations between the personal privacy rights and the rights of the business owner,” said Doron Dorfman, a professor at Syracuse University College of Law. He co-authored a report on the challenges of mask exemptions. It’s a new frontier during this pandemic but, not an entirely new legal concept.

“If you think about people that need doctors’ notes for service animals, as an example, or not standing in line in certain places,” said Dorfman.

Dorfman says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are simple.

Mask exemptions are for

  • Children under the age of 2
  • People who have chronic difficulty breathing
  • A physical condition where a mask can’t fit properly on the face
  • Those with sensory disorders-- like autism

However, the mask mandate laid out by Abbott is more comprehensive in its exemptions. Here’s a list of exemptions per Abbott’s order:

  • Children under the age of 10
  • Any person with a medical condition or disability that prevents wearing a face covering
  • Any person consuming food or drink or is seated at a restaurant to eat or drink
  • Any person that is exercising or engaging in physical activities outdoors and is maintaining safe social distancing from people who are not part of their household
  • Any person who is driving alone or with passengers who are in the same household as the driver
  • Any person obtaining a service that requires temporary removal of the covering during security surveillance, screening or need for specific access to the face (like while visiting a bank or obtaining personal care involving the face).
  • Any person in a pool, lake or similar body of water
  • Any person who is voting, assisting a voter, serving as a poll watcher or actively administering an election (but wearing a mask is strongly encouraged)
  • Any person who is actively providing access to religious worship (but wearing a mask is strongly encouraged)
  • Any person while the person is giving a speech for broadcast or to an audience
  • Any person who meets the criteria laid out by the Texas Division of Emergency Management regarding minimal cases of COVID-19 and whose county judge has opted out of the face-covering requirement (but wearing a mask is strongly encouraged)

Houston-area psychiatrist Dr. Tyson Godsy believes the vast majority of people should wear a mask. But he has written notes for patients.

"It's usually been anxiety or some sort of anxiety, PTSD, claustrophobia those seem to be the biggest ones," said Godsy.

Business owners’ rights

Dorfman says, if a person isn’t wearing a mask, businesses are legally allowed to ask only two questions:

  • Are you not wearing a mask because you have a disability?
  • What kind of benefit do you get from not wearing a mask in your situation?

Customers’ rights

Fellow customers on the other hand can ask whatever they want. But Dorfman warns that confrontations could erupt.

So if a customer has questions, they are better off speaking with a store’s manager.

“What I would love for people to know is that just because I’m not wearing a mask does not mean that I’m just not wanting to follow the order,” Hofer said.

Other solutions

So what are solutions for people with disabilities that don’t qualify for a doctor’s note?

Dorfman says that curbside service is one accommodation. Meanwhile, Godsy says he works with his clients on desensitizing them to their issues.

He suggests practice wearing a mask at home, for short periods of time, to slowly get adjusted.